Wednesday, May 15, 2013 |
The latest book by blockbuster novelist Dan Brown hit the shelves this week. Like his previous best sellers, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, Inferno follows the adventures of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. Langdon's newest adventure takes him to Florence, Italy, where the answers to stopping a mad scientist from destroying the world lie buried within the symbols of Inferno, a section from Dante's Divine Comedy.
Those worried the pressure of topping blockbuster hit The Da Vinci Code might be too much for Brown can rest assured -- Inferno became a best seller on the charts before it was even released. The pre-sale figures are so huge they even top the Da Vinci Code. The book community is hailing Inferno as easily the biggest book of 2013.
Dan Brown spoke to Jian Ghomeshi on Q the day after the release of Inferno to discuss his success as one of the best-selling writers of the 21st century. Brown's books don't become best-sellers by chance, he says: He puts a lot of work into giving them mainstream appeal. "I try to write books that are mainstream, that simultaneously educate, that simultaneously show people art and literature that they might not otherwise be interested in -- I'm just trying to get people interested in some of the things that I'm excited about."
Brown's Langdon series has a steady and winning formula that runs through all of the books -- the reliability of Langdon as a protagonist. According to Brown, the key to giving a character mainstream appeal is to make him a sort of everyman. "I think readers are smart people and they probably have a tendency toward people who are like them, not people who use guns and jujitsu to get out of tough situations whereas this is someone who uses his head, all of us have had that experience of getting out of tough situations with our heads," he said. "I think people identify with him". Langdon may be an ordinary guy but his adventures certainly aren't and it's the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extraordinary that have made this a blockbuster series.
Dante's Inferno might not seem like the most accessible source for the inspiration of the book of the same name but according to Brown it seemed like a perfect fit. "I had written a lot about the fine arts but I had never written about the literary arts, so in some way Dante called to me as something new and simultaneously it felt like familiar ground and solid ground for Langdon," he said. "The Divine Comedy is like the Mona Lisa -- one of those creations that is... transcendent. It transcends its moment in history and becomes a real cultural touchstone -- it was pretty tough to resist".
On Q, Brown reminds listeners that Dante's Divine Comedy was actually quite accessible to its audience of the time, since it was written in the vernacular rather than Latin. But to a modern audience it might seem slightly unfamiliar so Brown curates the way he portrays the ancient text in a very specific way. "I don't dumb down any of the information but I do trim it," he said. "Dante is perfectly accessible if it doesn't land on your desk in the form of the divine comedy -- there are scholars who have spent their entire careers studying this stuff. So for me, making it successful often has to do with cherry-picking those pieces that I feel will really... characterize what it is I'm trying to describe".
Some critics cringe at the way Brown carefully tailors his books -- cherry-picking the elements that will appeal to the widest range of tastes. When asked if he thinks the mainstream success of the books compromises the integrity of his work, Brown responded that he doesn't. "Often what it does is it brings people in from another direction to my books, people like to know what is successful because they often turn to other people to say what should I be reading? Well if everybody's reading this maybe I'll try that. I certainly don't begrudge any stories about the book being a bestseller if it will just bring more people to reading it."
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